Whatever the issue may be, a politician’s or a political party’s stand on it is determined by immediate political interests and not ideology, principles or long-standing commitments.
Cold calculation marks choices ahead of the November 16 Sri Lankan Presidential election. This has come out clearly in the stand taken by Lankan political leaders and political parties on the question of electoral alliances and issues like the abolition of the Executive Presidency (EP).
Abolition of the EP has been on the agenda of all Lankan political parties since 1995. Every candidate would pledge to abolish it if voted to power. But for one reason or the other, the promise would never be kept. However, come elections, the promise would be re-iterated and arguments mustered for the abolition of the EP.
But again, the promise would be broken because the office is so powerful that no occupant and his or her followers would want to give it up.
However, the opposition would not allow the incumbent to forget his or her pledge. Abolition of the EP would be raked up by the opposition to show the incumbent President as a power-hungry dictator misusing his powerful office. Abolition of the EP would be made an election issue the next time round.
Abolition of the EP was a key issue when the united opposition led by the United National Party (UNP) fought the January 2015 Presidential election with Maithripala Sirisena pitted against incumbent dictatorial President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The mass movement that this represented defeated Rajapaksa convincingly.
The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government, which came into being after the election, did pass the 19 th.Amendment toning down the powers of the EP but did not abolish it.
This was ostensibly because full abolition would need a referendum to be conducted. But the real reason was that no party honestly wanted complete abolition. A country which holds elections for various bodies periodically could well have conducted a referendum. But political interest or hunger of power and the fascination for powerful offices got the better of the leaders as it always did in the past. The 19 th.Amendment allowed the EP to continue with minor tinkering.
Why This Time?
In the run-up to the November 16, 2019 Presidential election, abolition of the EP was not issue till quite recently. The main issues were the need for national security and an efficient and responsive government following the April 21 Jihadist bombings and the comprehensive failure of the UNP-led coalition government.
But Prime Minister and UNP Supremo Ranil Wickremesnghe brought up the issue of EP abolition when he found that it was becoming more and more difficult to stop Deputy party Leader Sajith Premadasa from getting the UNP’s nomination to contest the Lankan Presidency.
President Maithripala Sirisena, who heads the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), also revived his interest in the abolition of the EP after he found that no other party would support his claim for a second term. He did not want the powerful EP to go into hands of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, brother of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the candidate of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP). Sirisena feared the Rajapaksas who he had abandoned to become the candidate of the joint opposition in the 2015 Presidential poll.
Sirisena told the public that they should not bother about the upcoming Presidential election because, after the election, the Executive Presidency would be abolished by a new parliament. The office to watch out for would be that of the Premier in a Westministerial parliamentary system, he said.
With the backing of President Sirisena, parliament Speaker Karu Jayasuriya and also M.A.Sumanthiran, a leading member of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), Prime Minister Wickremesinghe suddenly proposed to the cabinet that the EP be abolished by a cabinet decision on that day.
This whipped up a storm in the meeting, with the majority of the Ministers from every alliance party rising in revolt. They said that a key issue like the abolition of the EP could not be taken up when the date for the Presidential election had already been announced. In their view, Wickremesinghe’s crafty plan was to postpone the Presidential election to thwart Sajith Premadasa’s bid to contest leaving him in the political limbo.
Only a few ministers supported Wickremesinghe. Embarrassed by the reaction, Wickremesinghe blamed it on President Sirisena who heads the cabinet.
Need To Win Main Factor
While all political parties, including the parties of the minorities, are pledged to abolish the EP, all now want their candidate to win the upcoming Presidential election. Even those in the UNP backing Sajith Premadasa have said that the first step towards any constitutional reform should be to win the coming election. They fear that any delay in holding the election might result in Sajith’s campaign losing steam. He has already stretched himself quite a lot, being on a campaign trail for a month already.
Moreover, Sajith is not exactly in favor of abolition. According to him there is yet no “scientific survey” to say that the people want the EP to go. There is also a fear in Sajith’s camp that Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s strong commitment to retaining the EP will give the latter an edge in the election. It would enable Gotabaya to contrast his strong an pushy style with the lumbering style of the UNP-led incumbent government.
Minority Parties’ Interest
All minority parties except the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) are keen that Gotabaya Rajapaksa is defeated in the coming election as he is seen to be anti-Tamil and anti-Muslim. And in their view, the only man who can defeat Gotabaya is Sajith Premadasa of the UNP. In their view, Sajith has sufficient Sinhala-Buddhist votes. And in combination with the votes of the minority Tamils and Muslims, he should get the required 50% plus votes to win.
For the minorities there is no credible anti-Gotabaya candidate in the field other than Sajith. The Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP)’s Anura Kumara Dissanayaka has limited appeal. Therefore, all parties of the minorities have gravitated towards Sajith.
Additionally, minority parties, other than the TNA, need the support of a mainstream Sinhala Buddhist party to win seats in parliamentary elections as they are all located in Sinhala-Buddhist majority areas in South, Central and Western SriLanka. This is the reason why they are always in alliance with one or the other of the Sinhala-Buddhist parties like the SLFP and UNP (more UNP than SLFP though). This is the reason to back Sajith ,who in their view, is the most winnable Sinhala-Buddhist UNP candidate. Wickremesinghe, on the contrary, is devoid of these qualifications.
TNA Different Kettle of Fish
The TNA, however, is a different kettle of fish. Having its base only in the Tamil-majority Northern and Eastern Provinces, the TNA has no need to align with any of the Sinhala-Buddhist national parties to secure seats in parliament. It is therefore free to pursue goals like abolition of the EP.
According to the TNA, abolition of the EP is in the Tamils’ interest and indeed in the interest of all parties, small and big.
“Although the Executive President is directly elected, and no candidate can win without the votes of the minorities, the Tamils’ experience is that once elected, the Executive President ignores us given the powers of this office. But in a parliamentary system, executive power will be with the Prime Minister who is answerable to parliament, in which the minorities are well represented. No decision can be taken without a parliamentary nod and we the minorities will be able to play a vital role and that too continuously,” explained M.A.Sumanthiran MP and spokesman of the TNA.
Asked what the TNA proposes to do now that the bid to get the focus on to the issue the abolition of the EP has been scuttled, Sumanthiran said that the TNA will hold talks with all candidates to get the best deal for the Tamils of the North and East and the best deal will include abolition of the EP.
This is possible because votes of the North-Eastern Tamils are vital for the candidates in a close contest, he felt. And the forthcoming contest will be a very close one.